Kevin Chappell came to the 71st hole of the 2008 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship with his team, UCLA, clinging to a two-shot lead. His advantage on the individual board was four.
Purdue University’s Kampen Course was saturated, thick and breezy. The 17th hole was a difficult par 3. Chappell rinsed his tee shot. He missed the green with his third. He chipped in for bogey from an impossible angle.
Needing par at the last to secure both titles, he nearly drove it out of bounds left. Where ankle-deep rough should have been, his ball was perched cleanly on freshly mowed grass. Why? A residence that bordered the course had an owner who didn’t like looking at shaggy rough and, exceeding the boundaries, mowed down the shag carpet bluegrass. Chappell knocked it on the green and two-putted for the win(s).
Sometimes, even when you know a golfer will win, it takes an improbable journey to get there.
Nearly a decade later, Chappell finally got another win on a big stage. After six runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour, he will forever be able to avoid the doubters that have chased him since turning pro after that win in 2008.
“I'm just excited I don't have to answer that question again, what do I have to do to win,” he remarked immediately after capturing the Valero Texas Open with a birdie putt on his final hole.
In an era geared towards identifying the "Best to Have Not _____," the game of golf has become saturated with too many players trying to live up to too many expectations in a limited marketplace.
The year before Chappell won that dramatic NCAA double-dip, the individual title was won by a freshman phenom, Jamie Lovemark. In 2010, he was the Web.com Tour Player of the Year, earning his PGA Tour card quickly, and loudly. Everything was going according to plan.
“I'm looking forward to having a great year, try to win, maybe make The Presidents Cup team, stuff like that are my goals,” Lovemark said in the fall of 2010. “I definitely want to play consistent and try to get a win, definitely.”
Those expectations are from the player! Not fans. Not media. The player expected greatness, almost immediately. Back surgery derailed those initial expectations. His current run on the PGA Tour (59th in FedEx Cup points) is his third separate stint on Tour. He is still seeking that first win.
He’s not alone. Until Chappell’s win yesterday, only one NCAA champion or U.S. Amateur champion (Danny Lee) from the past 12 years has won on the PGA Tour. Many have won on other tours, but through the lens of the sharpest microscope, are they coming up short?
While the expectations are the same, every situation is uniquely different. It’s hard enough to win without the golfing community waiting for that win to come, quickly. It isn’t fair. Tiger Woods and LeBron James have ruined the ability to set fair expectations for greatness. That’s why Chappell’s reaction to the putt dropping was so cathartic.
“I said a lot that, you know, I had some success early and probably took it for granted,” Chappell reflected after his win. “A lot of hard work went into this and I don't think I would have it any other way. Those people that know me know I do everything the hard way, and 180 starts later, that's pretty hard.
“One thing I didn't do a good job of was enjoy [finishing second] very much. And so when I do struggle I really am miserable and I think that's what the key to today moving forward is, is really enjoy this moment and enjoy being a PGA Tour winner because there's no guarantees out here.”
Chappell’s win meant the most to him, but it was felt by so many others. You’ll hear it echoed in comments by other players in pursuit of that career-defining moment.
Winning is hard, no matter the talent. Embrace the journey.
The Other Winner
During the season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Nike Golf: OK, so this is getting away from the desired sentiment of this feature, but every player on television yesterday, seemingly, was wearing the Swoosh. The top four finishers at the Valero Texas Open were Nike staffers. Chappell, in fact, was still using Nike equipment to get that signature win.
When Nike got out of the equipment business, it sent shockwaves through the PGA Tour. Since then? Rory McIlroy has re-upped on a massive 10-year extension. Jason Day is now head-to-toe in it as well. To the fans, it is status quo.
The consumer equipment business seems a wasteland of used clubs, over-saturated driver inventories and a plateau of innovation. Nike made a business decision and hasn’t looked back. As long as the Swoosh is on the caps of winners each week, who needs the equipment?!